Most leaders I’ve met work exceptionally hard. They pay attention to the metrics of both progress and problems. They operate from an ethical center. They have an eye for opportunities and rely heavily on their intuition. They care about the people who work for them. And because of the pace and focus with which they operate, their own professional development frequently gets deferred or ignored.
From our perspective, the quickest way for high-capacity leaders in our industry to become even more effective is to learn to see themselves through the eyes of others. We cannot correct what we cannot see. In fact, the latest research shows that 95% of people believe they are self-aware when only 10-15% really are.
A couple of examples—When I first met Rick, it had been five years since he’d taken over his family business, a midsized commercial contracting firm in the upper Midwest. His father had wanted to make sure Rick never felt entitled and believed the best way for his son to learn both humility and the business was from the ground up, starting out as a laborer. That background and experience gave him a hardcore work ethic and exceptional tenacity. As Rick came up on the operational side of the business, he had to prove himself over and over again. In the five years since he’d become president, that experience had benefited him in several ways. Revenue was up…but all was not well internally.
Rick liked to say the secret to his success was brute force, and most agreed. He was a driven man and routinely wielded his anger as a club. Because he had personally excelled in every position he’d held, he couldn’t tolerate performance that was even slightly less perfect than he perceived his had been. His combination of micromanaging and critical nature had long angered and demotivated the people around him. Several high potentials had left. When we first met, Rick sincerely believed that these behaviors contributed to his success. It took some painfully honest feedback from valued team members for him to see the true cost of those behaviors.
Dave had a similar background but a different approach to leadership. The first half of his career was under the heavy hand of his father. Early on, Dave had decided that if he ever got the chance, he would lead differently. He chose to trust and empower people, and, for the most part, it paid off. Dave worked hard to give his people the tools they needed for success and to remove obstacles that got in their way.
Dave even created an outside advisory group and sought their advice on key decisions. These advisors offered Dave some honest feedback that helped him recognize his own limiting behavior—a tendency not to hold underperforming employees accountable. Because of his natural optimism and aversion to conflict, he would often hang onto people long after everyone else had reached the conclusion that they needed to go.
Both Rick and Dave had significant strengths, but both had blind spots that kept them from being their best. Once these behaviors were identified, Rick and Dave were able to take steps to change them. Limiting behaviors are hard to discover, and even harder to address without support. While an executive coach can be an effective way to improve quickly, there are practical steps any leader can take to identify and address limiting behaviors or underutilized strengths.
Creating Self-Awareness in Leaders
Compared to lower levels of leadership, senior-level executives are more likely to underestimate their self-awareness skills and overestimate their abilities. The reason for this misalignment is simple: The longer they’ve been at the top, the less likely they are to get honest feedback.
Here are some simple steps to increase self-awareness and then turn that self-awareness into lasting change.
- Actively Request Feedback – Many leaders we talk to are hesitant to ask for feedback, for a variety of reasons, including a fear of appearing weak or uncertain. Changing the language and framing the discussion as a developmental opportunity can reduce negative feelings around feedback and drive positive change. Developmental feedback is not about compliments and criticism. It’s about identifying behaviors that lead to success and behaviors that limit success.
- Plus feedback highlights those behaviors you want to see continue.
- Delta feedback is about identifying alternative responses that could lead to even greater results.By setting the example, your will likely follow suit and begin asking for feedback on its performance as well.
- Create an Action Plan – One you’ve identified behaviors or skills you would like to improve, pick two or three specific areas and create a plan for positive change. Build your action plan with simple steps, measurable goals and a clear definition of success.
- Identify an Accountability Partner or Team – All of us benefit from having others who can help us follow through on changes we say we want to make. Share your plan, then schedule regular check-ins to monitor progress, discuss challenges and get additional feedback.
- Share Plan With Others–Once we form an opinion of someone, it’s human nature to see only behaviors that align with that opinion. That’s why it’s important to let others know what you’re working on. A conversation like this goes a long way: “Hey, I know I tend to micromanage when the pressure’s on. That’s not a very productive or respectful way to lead. I’ve got a plan to change that behavior, but need your help. If you can just kindly let me know when I get in that mode and maybe also let me know when you see me making progress, I’d really appreciate your feedback.” It’s the rare employee who wouldn’t respond positively to a statement like that.
Once we can see how a behavior limits our results; build a plan for change; and get regular, consistent feedback on how we’re doing, it’s not unusual to see some pretty rapid growth. Getting better as a leader inevitably leads to better results by every measure.